World Cup dreams humiliatingly shattered on home turf by those ruthless Germans? Hopes of a post-Copa bright new dawn deflated by the news that grim-faced 2010 retread Dunga is your soccer panjandrums’ idea of a fresh start? Sense of doom and gloom hanging over the Seleção like an enormous black cloud?
Sem problemas. Just call-up Kaká to the national squad for the first time in 19 months, then sit back and watch the brightest smile in world soccer blow all the negativity away.
“I’m delighted. It feels really special to be picked, especially after being away for so long,” the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year said on hearing the news, those impeccable white teeth flashing brilliantly. It was a rare upbeat moment in what has been a troubling few months for Brazil. Great teeth or otherwise, only the stoniest of hearts would have begrudged Kaká his return to the spotlight.
The feel-good vibe has continued in Beijing this week as rebuilding Brazil prepares to take on the old enemy, Argentina, in the Chinese capital on Saturday (although reports say the friendly might be in question given the heightened air pollution in the area). Even with superstars such as Lionel Messi and Neymar in town, Kaká has received the most enthusiastic welcome of all. A poll on the website of the local Phoenix media group put him some distance ahead of his younger rivals in the popularity stakes.
“It’s the third time I’ve been to China. I got the same welcome the other times I was here too, but it’s surprising that it’s like this now,” said Kaká of all the adulation.
“It’s a pity they didn’t decide to call him up earlier because it would have been a fantastic opportunity to promote the game,” said Ken Bai Chuan, one of those responsible for organizing the friendly (Kaká was one of a number of late substitute call-ups after the Brazil squad was hit by a rash of injuries).
There are a number of possible explanations why Kaká, now 32 and back playing on loan at his first club São Paulo before he leaves for Orlando City and MLS at the end of the year, continues to enjoy such affection. His time spent playing under the global spotlight with European giants Milan and Real Madrid is one. He is also the star of a number of high profile advertising campaigns in China, including, rather unglamorously, one for the country’s leading brand of cough sweet. Not forgetting, of course, the power of those gleaming white teeth. According to Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a large percentage of the Chinese fans following Kaká around are teenage girls.
Still, Kaká has not traveled 11,000 miles just to make adolescent hearts flutter.
“Off the field, I can help with my leadership, maturity and experience,” he said this week, when asked how he thought he could contribute to Dunga’s squad. Certainly the deeply religious Kaká makes a positive role model – a characteristic prized by his no nonsense manager, especially after Roma right back Maicon was sent home in disgrace after breaking curfew following Brazil’s friendly against Colombia last month.
It is a role Kaká has played before. One of the positives of his brief spell in the Brazil team in 2012 was that he was able to ease some of the physical, and more importantly, psychological, pressure on a still learning Neymar as Brazil struggled for form under Mano Menezes. Midfielder Oscar, nicknamed “Kakazinho” (“Little Kaká”) as a youngster at São Paulo, can surely learn a few things from having the veteran around.
Greater doubts, however, surround what sort of a contribution Kaká might make on the field. Age and injuries have taken their toll, and those lung-bursting scampers of old are a thing of the past. Still, even taking into account the slightly gentler pace of the Brazilian club game when compared to the big European leagues, his form for São Paulo has been terrific. The leader of the club’s “Fantastic Four” of attacking talent, which also includes former Milan striker Alexandre Pato and gifted playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso, he has looked healthy, happy and motivated, the unhappiness of his injury hit later years in Europe a distant memory.
With around two months of the Brazilian season left, he is top of the league-wide individual performance charts of at least one publication (Placar magazine), and his performances have kept São Paulo, currently 2nd in Serie A, in with a slim chance of the league title.
“Kaká is working incredibly hard,” wrote Paulo Vinicius Coelho, one of Brazil’s leading sportswriters, in the Folha de São Paulo, after the midfielder led his team to victory over league leader Cruzeiro in front of 58,000 at the Morumbi stadium last month.
Certainly Kaká is ready to play against Messi and Co. “I’m here to compete, to fight for my place, though of course I’ll always respect the decisions of the manager,” he said on Thursday. He believes he has evolved as a player since that crushing defeat against the Netherlands at the South Africa World Cup in 2010.
“I’m much better in a physical, technical and tactical sense. I can read the game better today, because of the maturity and experience that I have now and that I didn’t have before,” he said.
Kaká will probably need all that maturity, however, for the signs are that he will have to settle for a place on the bench against Argentina, with Dunga making few changes from the team that beat Ecuador and Colombia in September. At least he will have company – his 2010 teammate, Santos striker Robinho, will likely be alongside him, with Atlético Mineiro’s versatile forward Diego Tardelli a better fit with Dunga’s attempts to turn the crumbling ruins of o jogo bonito into vorsprung durch technik.
Which is, unfortunately, the cavity that lurks behind that gleaming smile. Neither Kaká nor Robinho was a particularly dominant Serie A force toward the end of each's time in Milan, and both are on the wrong side of 30 – yet now, after just a few productive months in the Campeonato Brasileiro, they are being called upon to help Brazil recover from the most painful defeat in its history.
While it is true that both are only in the squad because of injuries (Robinho replaced Hulk, while Kaká came in for Cruzeiro forward Ricardo Goulart) it remains a sobering thought that Brazil’s post Massacre at the Mineirão revolution already has the look of a 2010 World Cup class reunion.
Those defeats against Germany and Holland showed that Neymar and Thiago Silva apart, there is a discernible lack of world class talent in Brazilian soccer at the moment – especially up front, where Diego Costa’s defection to Spain looks more and more catastrophic every time he pulls on a Chelsea shirt.
The mood in Dunga’s squad will always be brighter with Kaká around, but the likelihood is it will take more than the return of a midfielder who will be 36 by the time the next World Cup kicks off to put smiles on Brazilian faces in the long term.